11-2011 – 12-2011: First to Second Floor Stairs

At the beginning of November, Adam and I secured jobs as solar hot water installers at Sandri Energy. My friend Thom, who helped construct the foundation, is the project manager in Sandri’s renewable energy division, and recommended Adam and I for the positions. We had about a month before we would begin working full time, so we scrambled to get a bunch of things checked off the to-do list:

  • Finish electrical
    • Cedar walls for root room so light fixture and fan can be wired
    • Purchase wall sconces and outdoor fixtures
  • Finish plumbing
    • Kitchen counter for sink
    • Bathroom vanity for sink
  • Finish stairs from first to second floor
  • Railing around opening between floors
  • Second floor bathroom floors
  • Second floor bathroom shower
  • Finish solar system plumbing and schedule Energy Star inspection (before end of year for rebate)

During this period of time I really served as a general contractor and odd-job guy. For the first time we had issues around “subcontractors” being in each other’s ways. Incredibly we pretty much got it all checked off.

Adam worked diligently on the stairs to the second floor and the railing on the second floor. He did a fantastic job.

Beginning to work on the finish stairs

Beginning to work on the finish stairs

how to make a Home made Stair tread jig

In order to "copy" the exact angles and length of the treads, Adam constructed this simple yet incredibly useful stair tread jig.

Huge pile of wood planer shavings and chips

We purchased ready-made southern yellow pine treads, however, we bought rough material for the risers that needed planing. The wood shavings from the planer made a huge pile.

Custom stair case under construction

All the treads and risers are on. The newel post is anchored directly into the concrete slab. In order to tighten the nut you stick an extra long driver shaft down into the newel post.

Construction site mess custom home

View from landing to the first floor.

View from top of stairs down to landing while under construction

View from top of stairs down to landing while under construction

Black locust being used for a simulated final tread nosing

Ordinarily, one can go ahead and add on wood to serve as the top tread nosing, however, since our sub-floor also serves as the finish floor, we needed to subtract from the 2x6 spruce floor. We wanted to use a strong wood since this thin piece of wood will see a fair bit of stress. For the job we used a piece of black locust that was kicking around.

Custom hand rail railing profile

Adam and I collaborated on creating a custom cherry hand rail. We really like the finished product.

How to put a round tenon on a square baluster

Our home made balusters are square in cross section. We put a round tenon on the end using a method inspired by the "For Pros by Pros Stairbuilding" book. The book recommends using a dado blade on a table saw. You set up a block of wood with a hole that has the same diameter as the diagonal of the square cross section of the baluster next to the dado blade. You then push the baluster through the hole into the dado blade and rotate it. In part because we only had a portable table saw on site, Adam created another style of jig for use with his router table. Basically, he clamped on a 6" section of plastic tubing (same inside diameter as the baluster's cross section diagonal) onto the table, and then pushed the baluster down onto the router.

Wood staircase

The wood we purchased for the risers has a unique story. It was sold to Forest Products Associates, a local purveyor of domestic and foreign hard wood, by a local who had had it in his barn for decades. The long 1x10 and 12 boards we certainly had a previous life. Nail holes ran down both edges of the boards and one face of each board showed deep scoring of the softer summer growth wood. This type of gouging is similar to what Adam has seen on grain chutes. The wood was sold to us as southern yellow pine but it clearly isn't, as it isn't as tough, nor yellow. We were quite lucky getting this beautiful wood.

Growth rings on unknown wood. Very old growth rings

Whatever wood this is that we used for the risers, it shows incredible age. The sample here is about 7/8 of an inch thick. Even if you were to click on the much larger version of this image, you will still not be able to make out all of the growth rings. Perhaps putting it on a scanner might resolve some of the finer rings.

Completed solid wood stairs

Our completed staircase uses a variety of different wood species. Southern yellow pine treads, an unknown species of recycled old growth wood for the risers and landing flooring, white pine for the skirt boards, cherry that we milled from our own trees for the balusters, maple and cherry for the newel posts, black locust for the final nosing, and cherry for the rails. (Photo by Andy Grant)

Solid wood custom stair case cherry southern yellow pine

A view of the finished stairs looking from the top down to the landing. Adam put a tongue and groove on the recycled old growth wood used on the landing. Even though the boards were fairly tight to begin with, they shrunk some. Eighth inch gaps are visible between the boards. Perhaps they will close up this summer. (Photo by Andy Grant)

Cherry railing

As I said earlier, Adam did a fantastic job on the railing and stairs.

Simple Newel post caps

These simple newel post caps were made by running a square piece of wood through the table saw with the blade set to a 5 degree angle. Sanding them took a while.

Opening between second and first floors custom house home

Although the view from the second to the first floor is small, it is still really cool. It is nice to be able to step back and view the recycled granite first floor from a distance. A local carpenter, Bill Deters, trimmed out the opening between the floors with white pine and our own cherry. Hannah pointed out that this shot is reminiscent of M.C. Escher's drawings.

Solid cherry railing

A view looking down the hall from the top of the stairs.


2011-11-14: Paving (some of) our driveway

I would have preferred our entire drive to be crushed stone, however, the town of Greenfield requires that the part of the drive that is on their right of way be paved. My brother in law Andrew and I dug out the drive, as well as used a concrete saw cut the curb. We hired back the folks who did our slabs (Rob, Barnaby, and Jay). We didn’t pave the entire drive because of cost; also it is environmentally better when there are less impermeable surfaces.


Completed drive

The completed drive way

Number 10 inlaid on the drive

Jay and Barnaby had the great idea to inlay the house number on the drive using some left over granite


Jay and Barnaby surprised us with a paver they made out of some of the extra concrete.

2011-11-04: Finishing second floor floors

During the first weekend of November we finished the second floor floors. The floors are 2×6 tongue and groove spruce which also serve as the structural sub-floor. The boards had a lot of height variation so it ended up that we needed to power plane them before we could sand them. My brother Reno helped out Saturday. We finished the floors with Penofin’s Verde oil.

Reno sanding floors

Reno sanding floors

Spartan sanding floors

Spartan sanding floors

2011-10-29: Visit with friends, retrieve electric stove

Last October we visited with our friends Marissa and Tim in Poughkeepsie NY, in part so we could retrieve their “old” electric stove. Our trip down turned into quite the adventure as it ended up coinciding with a freak early snowstorm that dumped 1-2 feet of wet heavy snow through out the Northeast. Power was out for days in many areas, and around a week in some areas of Connecticut. Details at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Halloween_nor%27easter

While at their house we witnessed a transformer ignite just one block away as a result of a branch leaning on it. The power oscillated on and off while transformer sparked and burned for two hours. It was a remarkable sight.


Burning power line transformer


The transformer burned for only a brief time once it had fallen.

Tree fell on truck

A medium sized tree fell on the truck. Only the top of it hit, so there was no damage.


Back home, our one tree received a heavy pruning from the snow storm. Silver maples stay green and hold onto their leaves well into the fall. Once piled up, the downed branches lined the entire length of our segment of Vernon St. One branch put a minor dent in the corner of the south gable roof. Surprisingly, the crown of the tree still looks full.

Flat top electric stove

Marissa and Tim replaced their electric stove with a gas stove. Coincidentally, they wouldn't have been able to cook during the storm had they not made the switch days before.


Granite counter top scrap floor pictures

Granite counter top scrap remnant mosaic floor

We reserved the lighter color stone for the kitchen area since it doesn’t get as much direct sunlight as the living and dining areas.

Granite counter top recycled scrap tile floor

The kitchen and mudroom were both done towards the end of the entire process and so benefited from lessons learned. There is much less lippage between tiles. Nominally 1.25″ counter top varies +/- 1/8″. Thicker pieces were discarded and thinner pieces were built up with additional thinset in a technique called “backbuttering”. The “doormat” piece with red veins required a lot of attention. It varied in thickness by 1/4″ across its length–no doubt this was why it was in the discard pile at the manufacturer.

Messy yard

The yard was messy before we cut all the stone for the granite scrap floor, but after it got a lot worse.

We are still alive

Yup, we are still here–although just. The last couple of months have been especially crazy. As of two weeks ago Adam and I both started work for Sandri–our local oil and gasoline company. Don’t jump to conclusions though, we are working in the relatively new renewable energy division of the company installing solar hot water panels. Our first big job is a 32 panel system in Pittsfield Mass. for heating the Boys and Girls Club pool. The job is should be done before Christmas–which is good since Hannah and I are basically homeless at the moment. Our couch-surfing opportunity with friends has ended. Hannah has gone to stay with her parents while I have been staying overnight at a hotel in Pittsfield.

We had about a months notice before the Pittsfield job started so put in many a long work day on the house leading up to it. In the last month we finished and inspected both the plumbing and electrical systems. I subbed out the installation of our walk in shower (which is gorgeous!) The upstairs bath is tiled and our laundry machine has been installed. Amongst other things, Adam has been plugging away at the stairwell to the second floor. With any luck it will be done by the end of today. The stairs are beautiful by the way. We purchased yellow pine for the treads, cherry and maple for the newel posts, and we are using cherry that we harvested from the land for the balusters. Additionally the risers and landings are from a reclaimed wood that Adam believes to be chestnut. The kitchen has also come along. The sink counter area is tiled, we got a stove from our friends Marissa and Tim, and cabinets from my parents neighbors who recently renovated their kitchen. The main cooking area counter is just a piece of plywood for now, but eventually we will build a maple counter. Ah yes, we also spent a few days finishing the second floor floor, which involved power-planing sanding and oiling.

The solar system needs to be finished ASAP so we can get the energy star folks in here to certify the house before the end of the year. The only other things the house really needs are interior doors, trim, the finish stairwell to the third floor, and the finish decking for our porch (it has been temporarily decked with plywood).

Unfortunately, it does not appear we will be able to have our annual new years brunch at our new home. Although we will surely have our temporary occupancy permit by then, the house will still basically be a construction site.


Big weekend work party – Day 1 of 2

The first day of our weekend work party was a huge success! Not only did we make big in roads into laying our granite scrap tile floor, but the entire upstairs is now primed and ready for paint and the crushed stone is distributed onto our driveway.

Laying out the chalk lines for the granite counter top scrap floor

Laying out 2′ square chalk lines for the granite counter top scrap floor. The 2′ square pattern was chosen because it is about as much as can be lifted by one person on a pallet.

Jay Julie and Sue working on assembling segments for the floor

Jay Julie and Sue working on assembling segments for the floor. They are working with 2′ square pallets which will be carried in when they are done. More pallets are being made in the background.

Sue assembling a square segment for the granite scrap floor

Sue assembling a square segment for the granite scrap floor

The work party from the second floor window

The work party from the second floor window. Our powerful tile saw is visible in the lower part of the image. It has a 12″ diamond blade and can slide 3′.

Spartan beginning to lay the granite counter top scrap floor

Spartan beginning to lay the granite floor

Marissa assembling a 2 foot square floor segment

Marissa assembling a 2 foot square floor segment

Tim priming the ceiling for the secondary bed room

Tim priming the ceiling for the secondary bed room

Popsicle and juice break

Popsicle and juice break

Janna assembling a complex mosaic that represents the sun

Janna assembling a complex mosaic sunburst

Sue and Janna distributing crushed stone for the driveway

Sue and Janna distributing crushed stone for the driveway

Using our wet cutting saw to cut granite counter top scrap

We purchased a powerful 12″ 3′ sliding compound wet saw for making the granite scrap floor happen. It is still somewhat slow to make cuts–a couple of minutes for a long cut.

Spartan laying the granite scrap floor

Most of what was accomplished in terms of setting tile by the end of the day. We can already see that we will enjoy artful reflections of sunlight off the granite on our walls. The wooden sticks lying around are the 1/2″ spacers for the 2′ squares.

Dry wall hung and mudded and taped 10-3-11

We finished hanging the dry wall at the end of September. We hired out the mudding and taping – which is almost done. We used USG’s Ultralight dry wall. It is a far superior product–30% lighter, 30% stronger, cuts cleaner, and only a little more expensive. The improvements are achieved by entraining the drywall with air to reduce the weight and including fiberglass fibers to increase strength.